Review: 'Peterloo'

Mike Leigh's newest latest film, 'Peterloo,' examines a flashpoint
in the history of organized labor
Mike Leigh's 'Peterloo' revistits a 1819 massacre of working class protesters in England.

It's clear that Mike Leigh intended Peterloo, the story of an 1819 massacre of unarmed working people, as his magnum opus. In High Hopes, Naked and Vera Drake, among many others, Leigh has made unparalleled studies of the British class war through deep focus on the combatants, creating characters through improvisation and intensive rehearsal. He is a treasure, and has no parallel in America.

In Peterloo, a historical drama of some 20 or more characters, Leigh tries for a working class epic. But it's a tough business trying to match the intensity of, say, the Corpus Christi scenes in Roma or that landmark for staging political violence on screen, the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin (1926).

The film begins and ends with a family gathering: Young Joseph (David Moorst) returns to the England he fought for. Still wearing the crimson Army tunic he wore at Waterloo, he's PTSD-stricken and barely able to communicate. Times are hard; the mill owners in Manchester are keeping the workers wages low, and the price of food has skyrocketed because of tariffs keeping foreign grain out of England. And the entire industrial city of Manchester has no representation in parliament. The workers are organizing a peaceful rally for voting rights under the leadership of a renowned orator Henry Hunt (played with maximum superciliousness by Rory Kinnear). This landed liberal and would-be champion of the people insists that no one bring any weapons, leaving them unarmed when the cossacks are sicced on them.

Not being a liberal like Hunt, Leigh felt no need to seriously examine the anxieties of the upper class. They're portrayed as swine and buffoons, from the magistrates who hang petty thieves for stealing a coat all the way up to the painted Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), cooed over by his simian mistress in his Brighton palace. (She's Marion Bailey, unrecognizable from Leigh's Mr. Turner). Leigh strains a bit to get women into the story and sometimes succeeds: He has a good Brechtian idea of posing a street singer (Dorothy Atkinson) to perform ballads of the hard times, as well as an unusually fervent gathering of women's reformers, the film's highlight.

The epic is kept at a distance throughout, from the continual stand-and-deliver speechifying to the oddly unfeeling way the reporter confers over the shambles. One character refers to the building crisis as "a powder keg" but we can never quite hear it sizzle. As per Queen Victoria's quote about Prime Minister Gladstone, Peterloo addresses us as if we were a public meeting.

154 Mins.
The Aquarius Theater, Palo Alto

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